Living the Jazz Life
W. Royal Stokes
Oxford University Press
”Living the Jazz Life,” isn’t groundbreaking stuff, but it needn’t be. It’s a group of musicians (not exclusively jazz – the blues is well represented) speaking about their lives, the things and people that influenced them, and some views about what the art form means to them.
The new book by W. Royal Stokes (Oxford University Press, 278 pages) is subtitled “Conversations With Forty Musicians About Their Careers in Jazz,” and that pretty much sums it up. It’s a concept that’s been used before in books. But it’s one that works. That’s because the lives of touring, working musicians – particularly jazz artists whose toil under difficult circumstances in their native land – are generally interesting.
The paths to their muse are as varied as the improvised solos they produce in nightclubs, concert halls or on recorded music.
Stokes notes in his introduction that the 40 stories are all based on interviews he has done over the years, and the basic theme is the earlier development period. Not all of the interviews are from recent years, but the book does cover some of the newer stars like Dianna Krall and Ingrid Jensen. The book isn’t broken up into chapters on individuals, but goes by categories like sax players, pianists, singers, and composers.
It’s an interesting compilation, done in a forthright manner that contains continually intriguing stories. They are straight from the horse’s mouth, anecdotes told by the artists themselves.
There are stories here not found in other similar books, largely because it does not focus on “giants,” although certainly there are many people in the book who are among the greats: Jimmy Heath, Lew Tabakin, Shirley Horn, Joanne Brackeen, Louis Bellson.
But one can also find the story of a jazz harpist (that’s right, the instrument Harpo Marx played in musical interludes) in the person of Dorothy Ashby. It’s interesting for her to note the problems of playing improvisational harp, but also overcoming the obstacles of being a woman, and an African-American.
Families of musicians, like the Heath brothers (Jimmy, Percy, Albert), the McLeans (Jackie and son, Rene) and the Pizzarellis (Bucky and son, John) are part of the story in a chapter that shows how influences were passed on from parents to children, and on through the lineage.
The blues section doesn’t feature old grizzled veterans. Rather, newer artists like Sue Foley, Debbie Davies, Roy Rogers and Rory Block are included.
The roster of jazz artists (you won’t find them in the table of contents), in addition to the aforementioned, includes Freddy Cole, Slide Hampton, Nat Adderly, Terry Waldo, Glen Moore, Mal Waldron, Ramsey Lewis, Marcus Roberts, Cyrus Chestnut, Gerry Mulligan, Regina Carter, Monty Alexander and Slam Stewart, among others.
The stories are there, and they’re interesting:
Krall not starting her public singing career until 1990; Cyrus Chestnut’s baptism of fire with Betty Carter; Sinatra getting a very young Monty Alexander a gig at pal Jilly Rizzo’s bar – where he’d been previously rejected; Miles jump starting Horn’s career with a “use her or you lose me” demand to the Village Vanguard. And more.
It’s a page-turning read, the stories blending into each other and short enough that it can be enjoyed in spurts, as time allows. It’s fun and fascinating, as well as enlightening. It’s a good addition to the oral history that is so important to jazz art.